- Seminole Histories of the CalusaDance, Narrative, and Historical Consciousness
Aesthetic activity is found in all societies, but the forms that it takes vary tremendously, as do the manifold ways that it is woven into broader social, cultural, and historical patterns and processes. Among the indigenous peoples of Southern, or Southeastern, North America, dance, and its associated musical practices, is a particularly prominent—and beloved—form of art or expressive culture. From at least the precontact period that archaeologists identify as the Mississippian to the present, there is abundant evidence—including the testimony of contemporary Native people from the region—documenting the centrality of dance to the social and religious life of the Native South. The prominence of dance in almost every social and ceremonial gathering characteristic of ancestral community life—the annual Green Corn Ceremony practiced among most of the region’s peoples most prominent among them—speaks to dance’s importance. Although games, feasting, oratory, clothing, ritual gestures, herbal medicines, and numerous other customary and expressive forms are also central to Indian ceremonial life, dance might be understood as something like a keystone genre. This fact explains, in part, how the phrases “Green Corn Dance” and “Green Corn Ceremony” (or “dance ground” and “ceremonial ground”) can so easily be treated as synonymous.
I have had the tremendous good fortune of being welcomed among numerous Southeastern and Northeastern Woodland (hereafter, Eastern Woodlands or simply Woodlands) communities in present-day Oklahoma and to have experienced the richness of their music and dance practices firsthand.1 Indigenous music and dance in the region is many things at once. It is a pleasurable activity, a form of ritual action, a [End Page 122] deeply social phenomenon, an ancestral obligation, and a route toward health and well-being, among other purposes. Sometimes Woodland Indian dances are also bound up with historical knowledge and narratives that preserve understandings of the past, either from the earliest days of creation (as in the case of the Lizard and Feather Dances of the Euchee [Yuchi] people) or of past events unfolding in the steam of more recent history (as in, for instance, the Turkey Dance among the Caddo).
This article concerns Florida Seminole historical traditions relating to the Calusa and, perhaps, to other Native peoples indigenous to Southern Florida. The phenomena of dances practiced by one group but named after, and associated with, another people—a phenomena common to the Eastern Woodlands more broadly—provides its ethnological focus. The topic also offers an opportunity to reflect on the ways that Seminole relations with the Native peoples of South Florida have been variously represented in the historical literature. The evidence gathered here also points, in a small way, to some broader debates in the study of southern, and more broadly Woodland Indian, cultural history.
In the course of my own studies of the Native South, this project has had a long, slow germination. It began simply enough as an effort to report a very brief set of findings of ethnohistorical interest that were encoded in the unpublished notes of a student ethnographer among the Seminole in 1940–41. That effort stalled (ca. 2000) when I anxiously recognized that these modest notes spoke awkwardly to a then-new and prominent book-length history of the Seminole that carried the endorsement of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Returning to the project again after more than a decade and with fresh eyes, it appeared that the challenges of the article had only proliferated. Sharing the manuscript with up-to-date colleagues working on Southern Indian history, they observed that the themes at issue addressed broader concerns beyond the Seminole case specifically. Prominent among these are methodological debates relative to upstreaming and interpretive ones regarding the concepts of coalescence and ethnogenesis. These friendly readers insisted that I take a stab at these themes in the article. Like a snowball that gathers mass around a small beginning as it rolls along, the project is compelling but also, I fear, now awkward and hard to manage. The data on which it is based is limited but it is also compelling and worthy of examination by the scholarly community and by...